It was good to discover NSW had very quietly at the end of last year committed to following through with lifting BASIX energy standards for new homes from July 2017 (water efficiency improvements have been dumped, but that’s another story the government is yet to get back to us on).

As we said earlier this week, NSW is far behind the nation on thermal performance, averaging around 4.5 star NatHERS when the national minimum is 6 stars, so any improvement is welcome, even if pretty small compared to where we need to go to tackle climate change effectively.

The fight to raise performance goes back years though, with the BASIX review going on exhibition in 2013. At the time it seemed like a no-brainer. A cost-benefit analysis by Allen Consulting Group found net benefits totalling $511.7 million dollars by raising BASIX energy and water standards by up to 10 per cent.

This, however, didn’t stop a mainstream media campaign to get the changes off the table, which talked up the capital costs involved without considering the environmental and health benefits, and minimised operational cost savings.

Looking at the submissions, opposition came from the likely quarters – the Housing Industry Association, Master Builders Association and developer Meriton, among some others.

Part of the reasons for the change in heart from the government could be that compliance costs are now expected to be two-thirds lower than the 2014 estimates, boosting payback. The average household is now estimated to benefit by more than $4600 in bill savings over 30 years.

“This means a payback on investment to meet new BASIX targets in less than five years,” the government’s Draft Plan to Save NSW Energy and Money: Energy Efficient Homes says.

The opposition has also died down – mostly.

The Fifth Estate has heard an industry roundtable the government held on BASIX upgrades late last year was instructive of where opposition still resides.

Everyone in the room that day was in agreement that BASIX standards could be lifted without much pain. There was, however, the Housing Industry Association rep who kept conspicuously quiet the whole time. Didn’t say a word (though to be honest it’s a vast improvement on what they’ve said in the past – a sort of progress, you could say).

The mid-rise and high-rise apartment developers are pretty much on board. And why not? They’re now pushing close to meeting minimum standards, sustainable building designer Dick Clarke told us.

“We’re already doing it. It’s not going to cause us any pain to get an extra 0.2 stars,” is the feeling.

It’s the volume builders that are continuing to apply pressure to keep standards low.

For Clarke, it just doesn’t make sense though.

“We know vested interests are going to act against this, but vested interests are not acting in the interests of their customers,” he said.

If the extra costs are going to be paid off in less than five years from bill savings, there’s not much of an argument to make in terms of affordability.

“And if volume builders are only interested in profit, why are they not seeing every extra step required as a value add?”

The NSW government is now proposing to introduce a mechanism for continuous improvement so that BASIX will remain up to date – the changes coming in from July 2017 are the first update to be made in 10 years.

It would be a smart move, considering how difficult a change with such overwhelming benefit has been to get through.

A similar battle is going on nationally

Nationally, there’s also moves to establish such a performance improvement trajectory for the National Construction Code, both for commercial and residential buildings.

Aside from being politically easier than having to battle it out with the powerful industry laggards each time an improvement is made, having a long-term plan for improving efficiency is going to be good for business.

In terms of commercial buildings, The Fifth Estate has heard many businesses are fretting over an expected 15-40 per cent rise in their energy bills when they next negotiate contracts, so efficient buildings are becoming a priority.

Improvements will also be great for our ailing electricity system.

The Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council in its submission to the Independent Review into the Future Security of the National Electricity (the Finkel review) highlighted how important demand-side measures like energy efficient buildings could be to the grid and its stability.

Think about it: if we had houses efficient enough, we wouldn’t have to turn on so many airconditioners, the energy needs of which have been a key cause of the blackouts plaguing us during heatwaves.

But, shockingly, a resi performance increase doesn’t seem to be on the cards for the next update of the NCC.

“The next update is due in 2019,” ASBEC said in its submission. “It is likely that that stringency for energy performance will only be reviewed for commercial buildings in the 2019 Code, meaning that residential buildings will have effectively waited for 12 years before a stringency review is undertaken.

“Minimum standards for Australia’s buildings currently lag far behind best practice, and need to be updated urgently.

“Additionally, a trajectory should be established for future upgrades of the energy provisions in the Code, providing a clear opportunity to catalyse innovation, investment and market transformation in the sector by providing a strong regulatory signal of the direction for future standards, and deliver higher performing buildings.”

Work is currently being done on researching potential upgrades to the National Construction Code for commercial buildings. According to one insider, the jury is still out on whether residential reforms will be tackled.

There’s not much time to convince governments either. Any changes will have to be agreed to by COAG by May 2018 at the latest.

What’s certain is there’ll be industry groups that will fight tooth and nail to keep a 2019 residential code improvement off the table. For the sake of liveability, operational affordability and grid stability, we should really fight back to make sure it’s considered.

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  1. Great news! Australia has long held the worst “best practice” of any wealthy developed nation. The Building Code of Australia needs an overhaul and this is long overdue.